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This is so draconian! They became both victim and offender at the same time. People have sex at young age folks! When did you first have sex?
There are thousands of sexually active high school students in Sheboygan County — assuming national and state trends hold true locally — but many of those students are unaware their consensual sexual encounters are prosecutable offenses.
The charges aren't common because the encounters generally aren't reported, but some students say it's not right to charge anyone just because they are underage.
"I think that's up to the kids," said Jeff Haas, a 17-year-old junior at Sheboygan North High School. "I don't think the law should matter that much."
Chelsea Verbanc, 19, of Random Lake, agreed.
"I think (the law) should be more lenient because if it's consensual between both of them, they should be able to do it," said Verbanc, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan. Authorities "are not going to be able to stop the teens. It they want to have sex, they're going to, whether it's legal or not."
State law, however, is straightforward. Anyone who has sex with someone under 18 years of age is guilty of a crime, a felony if the other person is 15 or younger, regardless of consent.
This means cases involving rape and those involving consensual sexual contact are often charged identically, with prosecutors given discretion to pursue substantial penalties for the former and offer plea deals for the latter.
"We can't ignore these things — we have to charge them," said Sheboygan County District Attorney Joe DeCecco. "We take into consideration (if) it was consensual in nature, they were close in age … whether they had an ongoing relationship."
But initially, he said, "We have to charge with what we can legally charge."
Last year, 31 people in Sheboygan County were charged with sexual assault of a child between the ages of 13 and 15, DeCecco said. Nearly all of those were for consensual encounters, with three-quarters of those charged age 21 or younger. More than one-third of those charged were 16 or 17 years old.
An additional 10 people were charged with sexual assault of a child age 16 or 17, and again, the vast majority involved consensual contact, DeCecco said.
Cases often charged the same regardless of age, consent
Since statutes governing underage sex do not require prosecutors to prove consent — those under age 18 cannot legally consent to sex — the same charges can be filed for vastly different cases.
Jason Lee, 22, was charged Jan. 10 with second-degree sexual assault for impregnating his 16-year-old wife when she was 15. In a plea deal with prosecutors, the charge will be dismissed if he stays out of trouble for a year and performs 25 hours of community service.
Under the agreement, Lee will not be registered as a sex offender, as is required by state law for anyone convicted of the felony count who is four years or more older than the victim.
DeCecco said prosecutors will pursue mandatory registration as a sex offender for all felony convictions — explaining that cases serious enough to merit a felony should also merit registration — but state Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said he is hesitant to put any young offenders on the registry.
"I don't like the idea of 17-year-olds permanently being labeled as sex offenders," he said. "I don't think a 17-year-old with a 15-year-old consensual (sexual relationship) should be on the sex (offender) registry."
This could be an issue in three cases charged in the month after Lee that involved consensual sex but did not result in plea deals. In those situations, males ages 17 to 24 were charged for sex with 15- or 16-year-old girls. Those three — involving one sexual encounter at a party, one arranged via MySpace.com and one in which there was an eight-year age difference — are scheduled for jury trials in March or April.
The flexible statutes are the best arrangement, DeCecco said, explaining that once charges are issued, prosecutors can pursue major penalties or almost none, taking into consideration factors such as consent, whether there is a relationship, how close in age the parties are, whether a sexually-transmitted disease was passed and what the teens' parents think should be done.
"The problem is that when you get too specific in your criteria, there's always an exception," DeCecco said. "It's always different and you have to sit back and rely on your experience on these things."
Rep. Terry Van Akkeren, D-Sheboygan, said the laws are set up correctly.
"I think the state Legislature has done a good job of outlining it but (also) giving the DAs the ability to look at each case individually," he said. "We've tightened up in the last few years and made penalties stiffer, as it should be."
As to whether teens should be prosecuted in the first place for consensual acts, Van Akkeren said the age of consent won't be lowered anytime soon.
"The law has to stand on its own and not sway to what the culture is at the time," he said.
DeCecco said he knows authorities don't find out about most incidents involving underage sex, but every one that is reported is investigated, and each of those is charged if the evidence warrants.
But Grothman said the government is sending mixed messages about underage sex, specifically citing the state's Family Planning Waiver Program, which makes birth control accessible to girls age 15 and older.
"I think when one arm of the government is telling 15-year-olds to get on the pill and another arm of the government is saying it's a felony when a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old have sex, the government is sending mixed messages," Grothman said. "It's either horrible or it's not horrible, and the government can't make up its mind."
Solution is talking about sex
Given the number of underage sexual encounters likely going unreported, DeCecco said he doubts the cases that are charged serve as much of a deterrent.
"I really don't think that someone says, 'Oh, Tom got this charge for having sex with his girlfriend, I'm not going to have sex with my girlfriend.' I'm not sure that happens," DeCecco said. "Young people don't think that way."
Nationwide, 63 percent of students have had sex by the time they leave high school, according to a 2005 survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By that standard, about 4,400 of Sheboygan County's 7,000 high school students will be sexually active before graduating.
Ann Berg, a psychologist with the Sheboygan Area School District, said students are generally not ready for sex, as much as they may think they are.
"Typically, kids who are under 18 and even a lot of young adults in their 20s don't realize the personal ramifications of having sex outside of a very committed relationship," she said. "I think we should be as straightforward with kids as we can in terms of explaining beyond it's an illegal activity and explaining the emotional ramifications, the sexually transmitted disease ramifications."
Mary Jo Tittl, executive director of the Family Resource Center, said parents are primarily responsible for helping teens make good decisions about sexuality and the impact it can have on future relationships, schooling and jobs.
"When you make that choice to be involved sexually with another person, how do you make that choice, what do you base it on and what information do you have?" she said. "That's our job as a community, to give them as much information so they make a good choice."